Thursday, July 20, 2017

Doing business with China

Not so very long ago, whenever I wanted to build a circuit, I would get a little piece of through-hole board and painstakingly cut all the connecting wires myself. I thought having a circuit board custom-manufactured was something you only did if you had a lot of money and/or were planning on selling the boards at high volume. But apparently I've been behind the curve – it turns out there are a number of services that will manufacture small lots of custom PCBs for cheap. A few of them are so cheap, in fact, that the cost per PCB is probably less than what I would have spent on the silly through-hole prototype board! So I gave custom PCBs a try.

Old (left) and new (right)

<Disclaimer: DCDB says they'll give you a discount on your next order if you mention your completed project online.>

I decided to go with Dirt Cheap Dirty Boards, a service that submits your design to a Chinese board-manufacturing house. For fourteen dollars, you can submit one two-layer PCB layout that fits within a 5x5 cm area, and get anywhere from eight to twelve copies of it. (I got eleven. Supposedly shipments of less than ten boards are pretty uncommon.) Choose your color at no extra charge. A larger area or more layers can be had at an increased cost. Shipping is pricey if you want your boards to arrive on a normal US time frame, but if you're willing to let them throw your order on the plane whenever there's room, it's free. Given the glacially slow rate at which most of my projects seem to progress, this is perfect for me.

The PCB that I had built is a unipolar stepper motor controller. I used the free version of Eagle for schematic capture and layout, which proved to be fairly painless. DCDB lets you directly submit Eagle's native file format, .brd, but they only guarantee good results for an older version of Eagle, so I took the extra step of exporting to Gerber format.

My eleven little boards arrived looking gorgeous. I've assembled and tested most of them, without any problems. Oh, and I even got a promotional sticker in the package. How nice. On the whole, it was a good experience – certainly preferable to my painstaking manual wiring work – and I would order from them again.

Circuit board closeup

Of all the other services I looked at, the only one I remember being price-comparable was Seeed Studio. They'll sell you exactly 10 5x5 cm 2-layer boards for $9.90, with an added charge of at least $2 for shipping unless your total order is over $50. Also, the boards are green; any other color adds $10 to the price. I might try ordering from them in the future and comparing results.

My other recent direct China order went through DealeXtreme ( I specifically wanted jumper cables – you know, those simple colored wires with plastic plugs on the ends, which for some reason seem to end up costing more than the ICs they're designed to connect! But DE actually has them for what I'd consider a reasonable price. I also ended up purchasing some micro-motors and a cheap webcam. After making my order, I was alarmed by the large quantity of negative reviews I read about this website; nonetheless, all my items eventually arrived in good condition.

One frequent complaint made by reviewers is that the postal tracking numbers given by DE are invalid. I learned a couple of things in that regard that might help others who want to try ordering from this site.

1. After they e-mail you the tracking number, you may have to wait up to 48 hours before trying to track your package. Supposedly it can take that long for the Chinese postal service to enter the number in their database.
2. DE will send you a direct link in the e-mail, which you can supposedly click to track your package. These never worked for me. Instead of using this link, go to the main page of the postal service website and manually enter the tracking number in their form. (Use Google Chrome so you can auto-translate the page, if necessary.) All my tracking numbers eventually worked when I did this.

I'd still be nervous about ordering anything expensive through DealExtreme, but based on my experience, they might not be quite as terrible as the reviews will lead you to believe. My order arrived in four separate packages, and I think they all came within about a month.

Until the next cycle,


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